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Opinion: Increased access to mental health services is vital

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Editor's Note: This opinion piece by U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, first ran at USAToday.com.

President John F. Kennedy signed a revolutionary piece of legislation into law on Oct. 31, 1963. No longer would Americans with behavioral health issues be warehoused in asylums. Instead, the Community Mental Health Act would fund clinics so that people with mental health issues and addiction could receive help right in their own communities.

Less than a month later, Kennedy was tragically assassinated in Dallas. And, sadly, his goal never came to pass.

But thanks to our bipartisan work in the Senate, we're getting closer to finally seeing Kennedy’s vision of comprehensive, community-based care become reality.

For far too long, behavioral health care in our country has been funded through grants. When the grant runs out, so does the health care. Imagine being told that your heart attack can't be treated because the grant ran out. That happens to people with mental illness and addiction all the time, and it makes no sense.

We've been working together for years to change this. Our 2014 Excellence in Mental Health and Addiction Treatment Act established a demonstration initiative in eight states, now expanded to 10, to permanently close the gap in funding between physical and behavioral health care.

Our legislation created fully funded Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics, which are required to provide a comprehensive set of high-quality services. Anyone who walks through their door – at any time – has access to crisis care, immediate screenings, risk assessments, diagnoses and care coordination with health centers, law enforcement and veterans’ groups.

These clinics and the people they treat no longer depend on grants. Instead, Medicaid reimburses them for the full cost of services they provide. This is the same model used to fund physical health care through federally qualified health centers.

This approach is already changing people’s lives – and saving communities money – in the states where mental health and addiction treatment are funded the same way as other health care.

That’s why it is so significant that President Joe Biden’s budget expands our bipartisan model to every state that wants to participate.

The Department of Health and Human Services has found that people who received care at Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics had 63.2% fewer emergency department visits for behavioral health issues, saw a 40.7% decrease in homelessness and spent 60.3% less time in correctional facilities.

That's why these clinics are enthusiastically supported by law enforcement groups across the country – from Missouri to Oklahoma to New York to Michigan.

"Prior to the CCBHC demonstration, our officers would spend 4 to 5 hours – if not days – with a person experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis, waiting in emergency rooms at our local hospital and then traveling up to an hour to the nearest treatment center," said Pryor Creek Police Department Assistant Chief James Willyard in Pryor, Oklahoma.

With a clinic in his town, Willyard said, "We are saving up to 12 hours a day, per officer, when serving citizens in need of mental health or substance use services. I strongly support extending the CCBHC model … so our community can have the resources it needs to help families and individuals get into treatment and recovery instead of jail or the hospital."

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a tremendous toll on Americans' mental health. We know this program gets people the care they need, when they need it, which is why it’s more important than ever that we expand Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics nationwide.

We have introduced legislation to expand and make permanent the Excellence program, and we are encouraged by Biden's support for our efforts.

The nationwide expansion of Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics isn’t the only bipartisan behavioral health win in the president’s budget. It would double funding for children’s mental health and behavioral health workforce development and provide more mental health care for veterans and seniors.

In his State of the Union address in March, Biden said now is the time to come together as Democrats and Republicans to ensure that everyone who needs behavioral health care can get help. We couldn't agree more.

Mental health care isn’t a partisan issue. JFK knew this. We know this. Our Senate colleagues know this. And Biden knows this.

This is an important moment to come together and finally treat health care above the neck the same as health care below the neck.

Sen. Roy Blunt represents Missouri as a Republican, and Sen. Debbie Stabenow is a Democrat from Michigan.

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